Where are the Black Skeptics?


By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Certainly, Black skeptics are to be found among members of such groups as the Black Skeptics. However, when many people think of skeptics, they think of individuals such as Michael Shermer, organizations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP), and publications such as the Skeptical Inquirer.

Such individuals, organizations, and publications are primarily concerned with examining paranormal claims such as beliefs in ghosts, ESP, astrology, Earthly visitations from extraterrestrial aliens, cryptozoology (supposed creatures such as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster), telekinesis, UFOs, etc. To a lesser extent, these skeptics are concerned with critiquing fringe science, bad science and pseudoscience.

Very few people of African descent have been attracted to groups of skeptics, and few have subscribed to skeptical publications. There are many reasons to be considered when pondering this situation.

Most White skeptics tend to be hopelessly Eurocentric. They speak and write glowingly of the Enlightenment and its ideals, yet offer no strong critiques of its limitations or shortsightedness. Moreover, many White skeptics tend to embrace conservative libertarian ideas about politics and economics; and many support evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline that some people view as having racist and sexist implications.

When most White skeptics speak or write about issues involving people of African descent, they do not focus on anything positive. They tend to disparage African culture as they critique juju, witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs.

White skeptics are quickly dismissive of any idea that sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory. However, some Black skeptics actually embrace such theories. Others understand that, given the history of White supremacy, it would be foolish to be closed minded when talk of conspiracies arise.

Most White skeptics believe that genuine conspiracies cannot take place in ostensibly democratic nations such as the U.S. However, conspiracies have already taken place. The best known example is the Tuskegee experiment, in which African American men were left untreated for syphilis for decades. When confronted with this fact, most White skeptics tend to downplay it and/or dismiss it as a mere aberration.

However, this was no mere aberration. There have been many such conspiracies throughout Western history. For example, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens have been sterilized without their knowledge and against their will. Writing for the Associated Press, reporter Renee Elder states:

“More than 7,600 individuals were sterilized in the state [of North Carolina] under the eugenics program that ended in 1977 and largely targeted individuals who were young, poor, uneducated, mentally ill or Black. Some victims were as young as ten.”

She continues:

“Nationwide, there were more than 60,000 known victims of sterilization programs, with perhaps another 40,000 sterilized through ‘unofficial’ channels like hospitals or local health departments working on their own initiative.” (“NC sterilization victims urge fair compensation,” The Final Call, 7-26-11, page 4.)

The bottom line is that most White skeptics consider the government to be more benign and less powerful than do Blacks. African Americans are more likely to be aware of the history of government agencies—including the army—in spying on African Americans, and, in some cases, destroying African American organizations and undermining African governments. This disconnect will continue to assure that the numbers of Blacks interested in joining mainstream skeptics groups will be low.

Black standup comedians from Richard Pryor to Eddie Griffin have joked that UFOs never land in Black neighborhoods. It is true that Black people throughout the world do not generally give much thought to UFOs or profess to have been abducted by extraterrestrial aliens. (Even Louis Farrakhan’s Mother Plane tale is deemed absurd by most Black people that are aware of it).

However, the main reason Black skeptics are not obsessed with UFOs and other paranormal claims, is because such beliefs are relatively benign. After all, Black people have never been oppressed in the name of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. We have never been lynched by Martians or enslaved by astrologers. Black skeptics are primarily interested in fostering skeptical inquiry as a methodology in order to combat oppressive ideas and institutions, such as reactionary religions. That is one reason why, other than astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, there are no other truly well-known Black skeptics.

Furthermore, White skeptics have never made any sustained efforts to promote skepticism among African Americans, or to attract African Americans to their ranks. Still, African Americans should learn to be skeptical as a habit. This includes skepticism of paranormal claims. We should not buy into paranoid conspiratorial thinking. On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore genuine conspiracies contrived against us.

Comments

  1. Andrew Ricks says

    I know I'm really late on this post, but I'm just coming back here after a while. I liked some of what BS writes here but I remain largely unconvinced by the argument. Too much of this post struck me as the same old establishment blaming that black folks have engaged in for decades. I'm not saying that the white skeptics community pays enough attention to the black community or that when they do that it's always the "right" approach. But I'm sorry, I'm just not convinced this is a significant factor in the lack of interest in the black community in skepticism and free thought. It's not white skeptics' fault that most black people have a deep connection with religion, if not actually church. It's also not their fault that our community has such little interest in the sciences or that our interest in reading tends to be limited to subjects such as self-help, "Buppie" novels, sex and romance dramas and afro-centric revisonist screeds; when we read at all. All of these things and more explain why our community is amongst the least receptive to skepticism, not the attitudes of white skeptics. Attributing this kind of influence to white skeptics both exaggerates their role in putting blacks off from skepticism and absolves black people from our own failing to embrace what has become a growing trend in the last 4 or 5 years. I don't think that this kind of quasi afro-centric critique of white skeptics does anything to advance the cause of furthering black skepticism;a cause I embraced over 20 years ago, utterly undaunted by white skeptics not specifically talioring their message to appeal to me. I think that this type of criticism is emblematic of the weakness of much of establishment critique. This isn't discrimmination in hiring, it's not possibly biased college entrance exams, nor is it law that disportionally affects the black community. This is about free thought and the willingness to embrace it or not. No institution or laws are responsible for black people not embracing skepticism, black people's own disinterest is responsible. As black skeptics, we need to acknowledge this so that we can have an honest and uncompromised view of what we're up against.

  2. says

    It didn't provoke any thoughts in me. It simply made me wonder where the writer is getting his statistics. "Most White skeptics"? Would you care to back that up? And the comments about evolutionary psychology being racist and sexist are complete hogwash.

    If we're going to encourage more Black people to get involved in skeptic groups, writing unsubstantiated crap about White skeptics isn't going to bridge the gap. And I doubt very much that an "unwelcoming attitude" from those already in the movement has anywhere near the influence over Blacks' involvement as the Baptist Church and their own culture does.

    • Sheesh says

      He (and I’m assuming Sheldon is a he) is almost certainly white, given the way he phrased his remarks, but SO WHAT?

      “Most White skeptics”? Would you care to back that up?

      He’s absolutely right to ask — as any skeptic worth of the description would. These claims fly in the face of everyday experience (most white skeptics are “conservative libertarians”?!), and so like all extraordinary claims they require extraordinary evidence.

  3. Tai says

    agree with Andrew and Sheldon.
    there's nothing new here; only more 'us' versus 'them' thinking. One may as well ask: Where are all the Gay, Korean, and Mexican Skeptics?
    I just goes to show that even without religion there will still be more tribal/in-group/out-group thinking.

  4. says

    I never could stand the skeptical movement, ever since I was a student of Paul Kurtz in 1974. But the problem with white skeptics is not that they're white, but that they represent a technocratic elite that grew hand in hand with Cold War liberalism, a rather different bunch from old radicals such as E. Haldeman-Julius who operated prior to the McCarthy era. The "skeptics" were never on the cutting edge of anything. When I was studying the history of scientific racism in 1975, they were worried about astrology and spoon-bending. And many of them are historically, sociologically and politically illiterate, purveying pseudoscientific nonsense of their own, like Shermer, Harris, and Dawkins. It's rather important to understand who rises to the top and why in bourgeois society: to put it down as simply black vs. white is to remain at a superficial level of analysis.

  5. Sheesh says

    (I know this is a late comment, but I’ve just come across this post with the move to FTB.)

    Moreover, many White skeptics tend to embrace conservative libertarian ideas about politics and economics; and many support evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline that some people view as having racist and sexist implications.

    I have to agree with others, this is simply unsubstantiated bullshit. White skeptics tend to embrace conservative libertarian ideas?! In what country? The only well known skeptic I can think of that defends libertarianism (whether conservative or not I don’t know) is [white American] Michael Shermer and he is widely, constantly mocked for it by atheists on the Internet. I don’t know the extent to which pushback exists on paper since I’m not interested in subscribing to say Shermer’s Skeptic magazine.

    Further, to claim Black skeptics distrust the U.S. federal government more than White skeptics may be true, but it undermines the other claim that White skeptics are the more conservative or libertarian, does it not? Isn’t this a claim that Black skeptics have more in common with American conservatives and libertarians, shortly that their government is not benign and not to be trusted; and therefore likely to commit to conspiracies against them real or imagined, e.g., NAFTA, FEMA camps, gun-confiscation, Black Helicopters, 9/11 Truth, one-world government and other widely-held right-wing theories?

    I’m very interested to hear about Black skeptics/atheists without a background in Enlightment ideas or basis in Western philosophy (or as you put it Eurocentrism). I admit ignorance to this field and look forward to learning from a historically separate but ultimately convergent line of reasoning.

    Furthermore, White skeptics have never made any sustained efforts to promote skepticism among African Americans, or to attract African Americans to their ranks.

    Finally, an easy claim to make when the goal-posts are attached to a slippery term like sustained. Maybe other atheists of color could offer their insight into what efforts have been made to include POC generally and to what magnitude are they sustained. IMO, the effort has been pretty sustained for at least the last couple years.

    Does all my confusion perhaps stem from a misunderstanding — do you not include atheism in skepticism? Is that why I don’t understand all this? Your critique is only for skeptics that aren’t also atheist*?

    *I consider religious/theist persons claiming as skeptics to be pretty bad skeptics, barely worthy of the description.

  6. Sally Strange, OM says

    Err, well, I wouldn’t say MOST white atheists are conservative libertarian asshole types, but enough of them are that it creates a problem for anyone who’s interested in social justice and equality for people who aren’t white and male. Obviously actually backing this up is difficult, since researching the social attitudes among atheists is hardly a priority for those with resources to do such research, but if you’re not convinced, check out the responses on any Pharyngula thread that mentions feminism in any way. PZ posts a lot about women’s issues, and I’ve always wished he’d use his platform to talk more about issues affecting people of color. I’d be curious if we see similar responses. One of my favorites is “You’re not skeptical enough about feminist ideology, you should question its claims more,” and when you ask what claims they’d have us question, it’s either hemming and hawing or obvious straw man arguments.

    In any case, I’d really like to push back against the idea that just because the black community has internal issues that prevent POC from leaving religion, white atheists are absolved of the responsibility of doing better on diversity. POC are fighting on multiple fronts; as white atheists, we do have a numerical majority and we have power disproportionate to our numbers to affect the situation. If we choose to look away and tell black skeptics to get back to us when they’ve fixed the whole religion thing in their own community, we’re not going to get very far.

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